Review of Duck Soup (1933)

August 23, 2007

Duck Soup was always one of those movies that I’d heard of, was even familiar with, but had never sat down to watch. Indeed, no film out of the entire Marx Brothers oeuvre had ever passed before these eyes. But finally, when presented with the “What shall we watch over dinner?” question, it popped out of the DVD binder and there we were.

It took me a moment, while messing around with TCB’s insanely complex video/audio setup, to figure out that the Marx Brothers made talkies – of course, Groucho’s delivery wouldn’t be so legendary if it all came up in supertitle, and Harpo’s silence wouldn’t have been worth comment. Let the credits roll…

The credits contain a screen saying “Proud member of the NRA”. This (except, perhaps, for the black and white thing) was the first indication that Duck Soup is from another era. It is from an era where plot coherence was secondary to slapstick opportunities and setups for Groucho’s rapid-fire one-liners. It is from an era where you could make jokes about gas attacks, or “that’s why the darkies were born”. It is from an era where people routinely burst into song mid-film. And it is from an era where being without a hat was unthinkable.

The plot, for all its efforts to be convoluted, is rather simple: Mrs Teasdale, financier to the Freedonian government, insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be installed as leader or else she won’t lend them any more money. Teasdale herself is the object of the affections of both Firefly and the Sylvanian ambassador Trentino. The two insult each other and push their mythical fiefdoms into war.

There’s an entertaining subplot in which Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), employed as Trentino’s spies, spend much of their time bullying a lemonade-stand owner. Later in the film, they perform the classic “pretend mirror” routine (originally Charlie Chaplin’s) – perfectly executed, and made even more comical by the fact that they’re both disguised as Groucho. If Sideshow Bob’s rake gag owes its provenance to anything, it’s to Chico and Harpo – their slapstick routines run the amusing-tedious-hilarious route as well as any ill-fated evil sidekick ever could, some 60 years earlier.

Now, for someone as fond of awful puns as I am, I’m pretty ambivalent about Groucho Marx. Yes, he has some good lines, “Run out and find me a four-year-old child” being probably my favourite – but it seems that the story is wrenched and tortured just to provide him with setups. The best line, for the record, is “What about the old maestro?”, and I think it’s delivered by Chico. It’s a little hard to tell, because they’re all dressed like Groucho at that point. The script says it’s Groucho. But I want it to be Chico.

On a side note: Zeppo really doesn’t have much of a role, even as Groucho’s straight man. Apparently this was his last Marx Brothers movie. The film would have been little poorer without him.

Anyway, Duck Soup, as a ridiculously light absurdity, is entertaining. It certainly didn’t constitute a waste of an hour and a half, and it’s frenetically paced and notable for having only one special effect – and I’m not sure whether the breaking mirror is done badly for comic effect or just because that’s what movie special effects were like in the 30s. I wouldn’t rate the film (in terms of a stand-alone picture, compared to all that has come since) all that highly, though. That’s not to say that it isn’t a hugely important movie – for instance, I can’t imagine The Goon Show being made without it (Spike Milligan, of course, wasn’t afraid to spend an entire show building up to an excruciating punchline, rather than Groucho’s comparatively simple machine-gun of set-up/punchline, repeat ad nauseam). Indeed, there’s probably little comedy made after Duck Soup that doesn’t owe at least something to it.

In summary… it’s a must-watch, but not a must keep. You might even need to watch it twice if you can’t keep up with Groucho’s delivery. It’s the kind of film that’s hard not to laugh at at least somewhere, but I doubt it would stand up to multiple viewings.

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3 Responses to “Review of Duck Soup (1933)”

  1. TD Says:

    Duck Soup is a must-see, must-keep, and “must watch over and over.” It is comedic brilliance on film. Yes, it’s dated, and no movie is perfect (except “The Third Man”), but it’s a great comment on the ridiculousness of war.

    And I’ve been using a line Groucho sings in the film to describe what Barack Obama will say IF he gets elected. On inauguration day, I can picture BO breaking into song and singing “…if you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it.”

    (Yes, Bush has been bad, this and that, yadda yadda–but he will look like a good president compared with BO; just wait and see.)

  2. Ernest Brown Says:

    “NRA” stands for Roosevelt’s NATIONAL RECOVERY ADMINISTRATION, an organization all businesses were forced to join by law before the Supremes struck it down as unconstitutional 2 years after this movie was made.


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